Brad King Explores New Publishing Models at Carnegie Mellon University
The Forrest Files: October 8, 2020
Since 2017, Brad King has worked as the Editorial Director of Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press, an open access publishing press that specializes in trade and peer-reviewed books, academic journals, conference proceedings, and editorial content for the general public.
He earned his Masters in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he won the Wired magazine excellence in technology journalism award. He then went on to become a reporter, editor, multimedia storyteller, and senior producer for Wired magazine, Wired.com, and MIT’s Technology Review.
He has co-authored three books (“Dungeon & Dreamers,” “Frankenstein’s Legacy,” and “Learn Work Play”), edited several books and journals, and founded a small literary collective that published two books and four literary journals.
King , who lived in Austin from 1995 to 1998, is a member of PEN America and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Additionally, he has served on the Advisory Board for South by Southwest since 2003.
He says his favorite current book is “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi:
“The story spans 400 years, following the ancestors of two sisters beginning on the Gold Coast, on to the Mississippi plantations, Harlem, and into the belly of America. It’s the most powerful story about the Black experience I’ve ever read.”
Tell us more about what you are working on these days at Carnegie-Mellon.
I’m the Editorial Director for Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press. We’re an experimental academic press, which means we use a variety of technologies to drive the cost and speed of publishing down. We can put out a book for a little less than $150, and we can have to market in about seven to ten days. When we started back in 2006, we only published textbooks, edited collections, journals, and conference proceedings. But, we’re also a gold open access publisher, which means we make a free version available for everything we publish.
When I became the Editorial Director, our goal was to expand the press from traditional, peer-reviewed academic publications to include non-fiction trade books, which we’ve done. Last year, we published Pamela McCorduck’s memoir, “This Could Be Important,” which was the spiritual successor to her groundbreaking work “Machines That Think.” We all of this is over and we return to normal-ish life, we’ll continue building our trade publications so we can have a larger impact on the culture.
You have now sat on both sides of the publishing fence. What is more challenging — writing a book or publishing one?
They are such different beasts. Writing is far more difficult because it’s so deeply personal but that also means the rewards are more deeply gratifying. Publishing, for me, is much more joyous because I’m helping other writers get their work into the world.
In 2003, you wrote a book titled “Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic.” Weren’t you a little ahead of your time 15 years ago in seeing gaming as part of mainstream culture?
My co-author John Borland and I discussed that when we were originally writing this in 2002. But, I worked at Wired and he worked at Cnet so for us that future was obvious. The advances in hardware (PCs, consoles, mobiles), networks, and the push by Microsoft and others to “own the living room” meant that game development was getting a ton of money thrown at it. And, if you have a choice to use technology for work or play, the answer is almost always going to be “play.”
Did you foresee the rise of esports when you wrote “Dungeons and Dreamers”? What else did you get right (and get wrong) from 2003?
“Dungeons & Dreamers” is the story of how Dungeons & Dragons influenced the first several generations of game developers back in the mid-seventies through the nineties. Turns out, many of them tried to recreate — on the computer — the communities they experienced in basements, living rooms, college campuses. And that, in turn, fueled a great deal of how communities were thought about online (even to this day.) So, in the first edition we had several chapters about the CyberAthlete Professional League and the rise of professional gaming. We went to several big events. When we wrote the second edition ten years later, we actually stripped most of that out and focused more on the legacy of building communities online. Narratively that fit with what we were doing in our story — but I wish we had a whole epilogue (or other book) about the esports phenomenon because we kind of saw that coming.
A book you edited in 2017 was titled “Frankenstein’s Legacy: Four Conversations about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and the Modern World.” Have you become any more optimistic about the potential of artificial intelligence since then?
I am not more optimistic because I was at Wired in the late nineties. I saw the irrational exuberance and hubris of young entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. And — let me be clear — writers like me didn’t do a good enough job highlighting this back then. A.I and Machine Learning can — and will — do amazing things. It will revolutionize medicine and how we interact with our machines. As J.C.R. Licklider wrote in Man-Computer Symbiosis, it will revolutionize medicine and how we interact with our machines.
While we have ethicists producing a great deal of information on A.I. and Machine Learning, I see the same pattern developing that I (in hindsight) saw during the first dotcom boom. For instance with A.I. and Machine Learning — which are already being deployed in ways people don’t know — many of the decisions are in a black box because there are so many decisions being made by machines that unpacking just one of those — out of a billion — can be functionally impossible to do. We know this is bad. People are working on the problem. But these systems are still deployed in the world.
Given the experience of writing the “Dear America: Reflections on Race” book, what do you see ahead for the future of diversity and inclusion in this country?
Two things. The first is that white people who look and sound like me (I have a Northern Appalachian accent, y’all) need to speak on this subject to our friends and communities. We need to stand up against white supremacy and white nationalism. We need to put our bodies on the front line of this fight, which means standing in front some days and standing beside on other days. There is — and let’s be honest, there never was — and middle ground on this. And, I truly believe this is going to happen.
The second is that we need to demand structural changes through community-level action. For instance, Dr. Hilary Green runs the CSA Monument Mapping Project, which tracks the removal of monuments across the country. What you see — if you read the media coverage — is that the communities are engaging in discussions in their towns, with their friends. That is how this works.
“I miss SXSW Pitch, but it was exhausting! I hosted that event for seven years, and I was on stage fifteen hours a day on the last day. But that was the single greatest learning experience I’ve ever had.”
What is your next book about?
“So Far Appalachia,” the book project that’s plaguing my life. I’m working on a book about Appalachia, race, class, and American culture. But, it’s also a family memoir. We came to American in 1604, set up the first gunsmithing shop in Lancaster — the home of colonial gunmaking — and ended up settling what is now one of the poorest places in the country. The idea sprung from the question that people on the coasts used to ask me constantly: “Why do those people vote against their self interest?”
I wrote the book and received a ton of great feedback from agents, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. It was missing something. About a month ago, I figured out what was wrong. I’d written a story, but really what I needed to do was tell this story in essays. So, I chucked the manuscript and just started banging out the first drafts of these new essays that will explore a single idea in each piece instead of trying to weave this very complex story through a narrative arc.
What is your timeline on completing this re-write of “So Far Appalachia”?
Never ask a writer about a timeline! I’m hoping to finish one essay a month for the next year, and then see where we are.
You were involved as the emcee for SXSW Pitch (then called SXSW Accelerator) for many years. What is your favorite memory from that era?
I miss SXSW Pitch, but it was exhausting! I hosted that event for seven years, and I was on stage fifteen hours a day on the last day. But that was the single greatest learning experience I’ve ever had. A journalism professor once told me that the best reporters and writers were the dumbest people in the room. They asked questions and didn’t assume. They didn’t try to look smart. They tried to look curious. I had a front row seat to some of the smartest entrepreneurs pitching to venture capitalists and advisors while I sat on stage with co-emcees like Bob Metcalfe, Chris Sacca, and Tim Draper. I got to be the dumbest person in the room.
Speaking of a front row seat, you were part of the first generation of writers at Wired. What stands out in your memory about that experience?
That time was so chaotic. The ground underneath everything was constantly shifting because the world and our interactions with each other was changing so fast. Innovations hit every sector of life. (I still remember people debating how many devices were too many. Will you carry a phone, a digital camera, AND an MP3 player?) Everything felt possible in those early years of the dotcom boom.
You don’t have that everything-feels-possible optimism for technology anymore?
Today, I’m far more skeptical about the ways in which we are developing, deploying, and regulating the use of technology. Social platforms are spreading disinformation. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are deployed without a robust understanding of how flawed data might impact those outcomes. And, largely, we don’t have the national desire to try to solve big problems like climate change or space exploration.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t brilliant developments. IBM’s Watson being used in clinical diagnoses, for instance, is going to transform healthcare. But, there isn’t a directed, national movement. And that, I think, is a lost opportunity.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.